This editorial first appeared in the San Antonio Express-News. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.
Consider, if you will, two photographs of legislation being signed in carefully staged ceremonies. The subject of both pieces of legislation is voting, a citizen’s most powerful tool in the workshop of democracy. The men signing the documents are both Texans.
Fifty-six years separate the two photographs, but the distance between the intent of the two pieces of legislation is much greater. The first was a voting rights bill, the second a voting restrictions bill.
In the first photo, President Lyndon B. Johnson, on Aug. 6, 1965, signs into law the Voting Rights Act, or VRA, a bill that not only was the crown jewel of the civil rights movement but was the culmination of 178 years — since the writing of the Constitution, which limited voting to propertied white males — of efforts to expand that right to vote.
Too slowly, too painfully and against too much resistance, that expansion would include, chronologically, Black men (the 15th Amendment), women (the 19th Amendment) and all the barriers still disenfranchising Black people (the VRA). In 1971, it would expand that right to 18-year-olds through the 26th Amendment.
The thread running through all fights to expand the vote was the understanding that elections have integrity only when the ballot box is easily and equally accessible to all eligible voters. That was the accomplishment activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, and politicians such as LBJ and Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., celebrated with the VRA’s signing.
In the second photo, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, last week, signs into law Senate Bill 1, the purpose of which is to suppress the vote by making it unnecessarily restrictive in a state that already has the most restrictive voting laws in the nation — and just completed a fair and accurate election.
No feature in this new law — not the bans on drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting and the distribution of mail-in applications; not the new ID requirements for voting by mail; not the enhanced partisan poll-watcher protections; not the new rules and possible criminal penalties for voter assistance — is in response to any problems during the 2020 primary and general elections. These are elections the Texas secretary of state called “smooth and secure.”
LBJ and his bipartisan supporters, including Dirksen, the Republican minority leader, were moved to correct injustices, but Abbott and his colleagues in the Republican-led Texas Legislature appear afraid they can’t honestly compete for all votes.
Abbott signed SB 1 in Tyler, home of the bill’s main author, Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes. Throughout the ceremony, Hughes seemed almost giddy.
To get to the VRA in the summer of 1965, the Edmund Pettus Bridge had to be crossed in Selma, Alabama, and women and men were beaten, and lives were lost.
Sacrifices and suffering led to the passage and the signing of the legislation.
What bridges were crossed to get to Tyler in the summer of 2021? How many bodies were beaten? How many lives were lost?
What sacrifices and suffering did the smiling Hughes and preening Abbott endure to make it harder for fellow Texans to vote?
The 1965 photograph preserved a moment when historic figures gathered to expand the democratic promise of the United States.
The 2021 photograph captured a moment when small, unimaginative elected officials responded to the falsehood of widespread voter fraud with very real voter suppression.
Fifty-six years from now, the latter won’t hold up as well as the former.